July 19th, 2010

[LINK] "Spain’s unemployment devastates residents, adds country to European nations in crisis "

This Doug Saunders article, one of a series of articles from Europe (the pre-2004 European Union, for whatever it's worth), describes the plight of one very unfortunate Spanish worker who got himself in over his head and now has a wrecked life. Spain, amazingly, has no personal bankruptcy law. Cadena illustrates the sorts of sufferings that my co-blogger Edward Hugh warned about before the crash.

44-year-old construction worker [Jaime Cadena] sat at the folding table in the tiny living room of his basement apartment on the outskirts of Barcelona and tried to grasp the larger meaning of a letter from the bank informing him he no longer owned the property.

The apartment will be auctioned at a fraction of the price he’d paid for it four years ago, when his fast-rising salary seemed a sure ticket to middle-class stability for his family. If a buyer is found this week, he and his four teenaged children will be evicted. As Spain has no personal-bankruptcy law, he will still owe the bank almost €200,000 – more than the current market value of the apartment – even if he loses it.

“It’s like a terrible weight I’m forced to carry,” Mr. Cadena says. “I feel like the whole country’s problems have fallen on my back.”

With an unemployment rate of nearly 20 per cent, the highest in Europe, it could be a long time before he finds more than the occasional month-long construction job. But the spending cuts launched by Mr. Zapatero this week will likely lead to reductions in the welfare and unemployment-insurance programs that were Mr. Cadena’s only hope of staying aloft until jobs materialize again.

Mr. Cadena’s family are part of an estimated 1.4 million Spaniards now facing court action over unpaid mortgages. During the late 1990s and 2000s, a freewheeling mortgage market gave Spain the highest rate of homeownership in Europe and possibly in the Western world, at 85 per cent. But property values quickly collapsed across Spain – falling more than 40 per cent in Barcelona – at the same time as 2.5 million jobs were wiped out, so there are now a million Spanish families in which all the members are unemployed.

Cadena's plight, at least as Saunders describes it, is certainly partly of his own making--what was he thinking?--but also partly the consequences of an irresponsible financial system--what were the banks thinking?

Mr. Cadena’s case is typical in many respects. He is, along with one-10th of all Spaniards today, an immigrant – in his case from Ecuador – who worked hard for a dozen years, married, raised a family and was stably employed enough to became naturalized. A house seemed a logical next step; in fact, his neighbours told him, it was insane to continue renting.

In 2006, a Barcelona bank offered him a “free” mortgage – with no down payment – that was offered, signed and closed in one day. His salary of €1,100 a month was combined with his wife’s earnings of €600, and the bank asked them to claim they worked weekends (they didn’t) in order to make their income appear high enough to qualify them.

Before he had a chance to think about it, Mr. Cadena was given the keys to the apartment and a 2-centimetre-thick package of fine-print pages he either couldn’t or didn’t read, and was told the mortgage payments would be €900 a month, withdrawn from his account.

He had no idea how much he’d paid for the 3-bedroom basement apartment (only this year did he realize it was an extraordinary €253,000) or the interest rate (5 per cent above prime).

The monthly payments, he soon learned, were calibrated to rise over time, first to €1,100 euros and then, in 2009, to €1,600 – a mortgage structure, also popular in the United States, that only made sense under the assumption both the borrower’s income and the house’s value would rise quickly and constantly.

They didn’t. The collapse of Spain’s property bubble coincided with the rising mortgage rates faced by Mr. Cadena (and many others). In early 2009, his construction company cut his shifts to six hours per day; in November they folded completely.

[LINK] "Cajuns on Gulf Worry They May Need to Move Again"

Susan Saulny's New York Times article does a better job than most of capturing the way I can easily connect Louisiana's environmental catastrophe with past and present issues in Atlantic Canada. Consider: both areas were originally French, populated by Acadians, later absorbed into Anglo-America but with their own distinctive differences, with histories of relative wealth and prominence recently given away to decline and poverty, and with strng traditional/neo-traditional cultures too profoundly rooted in very specific circumstances to survive much change. The Cajuns Saulny interviews sounds like nothing so much as the Newfoundlanders interviewed after the collapse of the cod fisheries. Could offshore oil development (further) wreck Atlantic Canadian waters, too?

In Chauvin, in south Terrebonne Parish, it is as common to hear people speak Cajun French while shopping at the Piggly Wiggly as on the shrimp docks. You can hear zydeco on local radio hosted by a D.J. who speaks the patois. Fried fish is not uncommon at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The economy in the parish of 110,000 people, about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, is heavily dependent on the fishing and oil industries — precisely what the spill has hurt most.

While Cajuns on the coast may be able to hold on for now, the question of what happens in the long run remains.

“I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities,” said James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s a life-or-death decision for them: People can’t see a life anywhere else. If they can’t live the life that they’re used to within their culture, then that is death.”

Stanley Sevin, a mechanic, decided years ago to get out of the family business because he did not see a future in shrimp. He founded a company, SS Motorsports, and hopes to move away.

He still thinks his family should consider it.

“I’ve never seen them so devastated,” he said.

His mother said: “I understand he wants better for us because he’s seen us struggling. But living away, that’s something I can’t think about right now. We Cajuns are stubborn and hard-headed, what can I say?”

Slipping into the mix of Cajun French and English that he usually speaks, O’Neil Sevin said, “Here, it was never easy, mais yeah, it was une bonne vie.”

[LINK] "HIV study bolsters idea of treatment as prevention"

André Picard, who co-wrote this Globe and Mail article with Cigdem Iltan, has followed HIV/AIDS in Canada and elsewhere for decades. This news item, relatively unsurprising, is yet another cheery news item about an epidemic that we're starting to understand how to treat effectively, if not yet effectively treat.

The notion that treating HIV can reduce the chances of the disease spreading – and therefore is also an effective means of prevention – “is a true game changer,” Dr. Julio Montaner, lead researcher of the study and director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS, said at the International AIDS Society conference in Vienna on Sunday.

The research is one of several studies that have encouraged the United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS to change its approach to the epidemic and view treatment as a prevention tool.

Researchers observed a 3-per-cent decrease in HIV diagnoses in B.C. for every 100 patients who used the treatment, called highly active antiretroviral therapy.

As use of HAART in B.C. increased 547 per cent between 1996 and 2009, the number of new HIV diagnoses fell 52 per cent, according to the study.

Antiretroviral drugs, which can slow the progression of HIV-AIDS symptoms, decrease viral loads in plasma and other biological fluids, the study said.

The findings dramatically enhance the return on investment for the therapy, and bolster the campaign for treating people earlier and more broadly because they will be less likely to infect others, Dr. Montaner said.

The researchers conducted a population-based study using data from B.C., where HIV care is free. The study also found a decrease in new HIV diagnoses in a more concentrated population base of intravenous drug users.

[LINK] "It came from beneath the sea"

China, Michael Byers writes in the Globe and Mail, is hoping to start mining the seabed in the very near future. Thus may begin a new era of mining, taking advantage of the unusual conditions and potential profits of the seafloor while hopefully avoiding inflicting the same massive environmental damage that land-based mines have so often inflicted on their neighbourhoods.

Last month, the Chinese government filed an application with the International Seabed Authority – a body created under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – to extract ore from an underwater ridge in the Indian Ocean.

By accepting the convention’s regulatory authority, China is approaching deep-sea mining like a hockey game, with players competing vigorously within a framework of rules and under the oversight of a referee.

China filed its application on the very first day it was legally entitled to do so. It was only last month – after six years of negotiations – that parties to the UN convention agreed on regulations specific to the mining of “polymetallic sulphides.”

These sulphur-bearing minerals, found around underwater geysers called “hydrothermal vents,” often contain large quantities of gold, silver, copper, nickel and cobalt – which are used in the batteries and electronics of laptop computers, cellphones and hybrid cars.

[. . .]

The UN convention requires that countries ensure “effective protection” for the environment during deep-sea mining but provides no guidance as to what effective protection entails. The recently adopted regulations state that the International Seabed Authority shall “establish and keep under periodic review environmental rules, regulations and procedures to ensure effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects,” and that such rules should reflect a “precautionary approach.”

Such an approach could involve the outright prohibition of mining around hydrothermal vents, because stirring up the seabed spreads toxic sulphides and disturbs the highly specialized ecosystems that flourish in the hot, mineral-laden water.

The Canadian government was the first to apply the precautionary approach to deep-sea mining when, in 2003, it designated the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents as a marine-protected area. Located southwest of Vancouver Island in 2,250 metres of water, the vents fall within Canada’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Prohibiting mining can offer commercial benefits, because the ecosystems around hydrothermal vents are based on heat-tolerant microbes. In the complete darkness that exists at great depths, these microbes convert chemical energy into organic material, much like plants convert solar energy during photosynthesis. Enzymes from some of the 60 highly specialized organisms around the Endeavour vents are already being used for industrial and medical applications.

[LINK] "New Brunswick throws a wrench into AECL sale plans"

If New Brunswick really is buying a French reactor to expand its Point Lepreau complex instead of turning back to the the problematic CANDU design, the future of the Canadian nuclear civil industry is bleak indeed.

New Brunswick has cast a pall over Ottawa’s effort to sell off Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., announcing that it has dropped AECL’s proposal to build a new reactor and is turning instead to the Crown corporation’s arch-rival, France’s Areva Group.

The New Brunswick decision, made public on Thursday, is the second major setback for AECL in the past year. Last summer, the Ontario government postponed indefinitely the purchase of the corporation’s next-generation Candu reactor, which is still in development.

The Harper government is trying to sell AECL, and the bidding process, managed by New York merchant bank N.M. Rothschild & Sons closed on June 30. Industry insiders say there were multiple bidders, including Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, a unit of Toshiba Corp.

Areva had indicated during the Ontario competition that it would consider seeking a stake in Canada’s flagship nuclear company, but its interest has cooled, and sources said on Thursday that the French multinational has dropped out.

It remains uncertain whether the would-be buyers are willing to pay a price that Ottawa would find acceptable, including the assumption of AECL’s liabilities. And the announcement from New Brunswick undermines confidence in the company, although AECL’s call for private financing of new reactors had made it a long shot.

“I get the impression there’s not a heck of a lot of interest” in buying control of AECL, said Bryne Purchase, a former deputy minister of energy in Ontario and now a professor of energy policy at Queen’s University.

He added that any buyer would be unlikely to assume AECL’s liabilities, and might demand additional guarantees from Ottawa to support the company in the international marketplace. In fact, the market is dominated by companies that are seen as “national champions” at home and are well supported by their governments, he said.

Mr. Purchase said the New Brunswick agreement fuels the perception that AECL is unable to sell reactors, has little government support in Canada, and is essentially being sold as a company that is in the business of refurbishing its existing reactors.

[LINK] "Study: Geoengineering Can’t Adjust Earth’s Thermostat to Everyone’s Liking"

80 Beats' Andrew Moseman writes about the unsurprising news that humans cannot control geoengineering techniques--man-made interventions in the climate--nearly finely enough to simulate "normal" conditions, even though doing so may well be better than doing nothing and letting an embrittled climate system break down.

Those who would argue “absolutely not” to the latter got a boost by a new study out in Nature Geoscience. Katharine Ricke and her team modeled the effects of one of the most popular geoengineering plans: seeding the atmosphere with aerosols to reflect away some of the sun’s rays, mimicking the way a massive volcanic eruption can cool the Earth. Ricke found that the effects on rainfall and temperature could vary wildly by region—and that what’s best for one country could spell disaster for another.

For example, Ricke says, her study found that levels of sulphate that kept China closest to its baseline climate were so high that they made India cold and wet. Those that were best for India caused China to overheat. She notes, however, that both countries fared better either way than under a no-geoengineering policy.

Given the complex connectivity of the climate system, it’s not possible to fix everything to everybody’s liking. While the team’s study shows that geoengineers could control either temperature or precipitation pretty well by fine-tuning their atmospheric seeding, they couldn’t control both at once.

“People won’t agree on what level of geoengineering is desirable,” says Myles Allen of the University of Oxford, who was involved in the study. “It works, but it won’t work the same way for everyone”

[LINK] "Russia to invest US$810M in new space launch site"

Would a new spaceport in eastern Siberia offer Russian space rockets access to any particular advantageous set of orbits? The proposed Vostochny Cosmodrome looks, at least at first glance, to be as much an audacious effort at stimulating the economy of the Russian Far East as domestic backup for Kazakhstan's Baikonur.

Russia will build a new US$810-million space launch site as part of its efforts to defend its share of the increasingly competitive space launch market, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Monday.

Like in Soviet times, Russia dominates the global space industry, carrying out 37% of last year’s 78 launches around the world, according to the U.S.-based Space Foundation non-profit group.

But it faces growing competition from Europe, Asia and the United States as the market becomes increasingly commercialised.

Mr. Putin, whose ambition is to restore Moscow’s Soviet-era might, said the new Vostochny launch pad in Russia’s Far East region of Amur would be built in three years.

“I would like to stress that our task is to strengthen Russia’s positions in the global market of space services. We need to be competitive. The situation in global market is such that we will cope with this task,” Mr. Putin said.

“I hope that Vostochny will become the first Russian national cosmodrome of civilian use, that it will guarantee us full independence in our space activities,” he told a meeting of space industry officials.

The new facility aims to rival Kazakhstan’s Baikonur launch site when it opens for unmanned flights in 2015 and manned flights in 2018. Russia has been leasing Baikonur for US$115-million per year since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The current Baikonur lease ends in 2050.